Review by David Sehat
Georgia State University
Over of the last fifteen years, there has been an enormous upsurge of interest in the Founding Fathers. Take the example of Benjamin Franklin. In my own university library, I count twelve formal biographies of Franklin published since 2000 alone, and that excludes books in which he is a principal figure or is used as a lens into other issues. The same can be said of many other Founders. So at first glance it might seem that Revolutionary Founders is the latest in a long line to be cashing in on this publishing trend. But if so, it cashes in from a slightly contrarian position.
The editors begin with a common enough conundrum that faces anyone who wishes to celebrate the nation: A majority of the fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence, with its lofty claims that “all men are created equal,” nevertheless enslaved other men and women. Add to this their patriarchy, their contempt for the claims of Native Americans, their distrust of democracy, and their general conservatism, and little remains left to celebrate but the principle of equality that they proclaimed and then flouted.
But the editors still regard the American Revolution as revolutionary precisely because of this claim of equality, so they shift the pantheon to another set of heroes—the common men and women that are often left out of the story. That’s where the “rebels, radicals, and reformers” of the subtitle come in. The result is a decidedly interesting set of essays, some twenty-four in all. But they don’t quite live up to the editors’ expectations of a heroic counter-narrative to the worship of our usual Founding Fathers. In fact, the best of the essays call this heroism into question.
T.H. Breen’s essay on Samuel Thompson’s War, for example, notes the determined nationalism in the language often used to describe the revolution. He points out that the term “patriots,” which describes the American partisans in contrast to the “Tories,” is preloaded with a tendency to celebration. He suggests that historians talk instead about American “insurgents” or even American “militants.” Having made the shift in vocabulary, Breen goes on to describe a small-scale insurgency undertaken by Samuel Thompson, whose 1775 military activities in Maine, in Breen’s words, “exposed the raw, violent side of popular resistance to the British Empire” (p. 55). Breen’s essay offers what can only be called an account of political terrorism, in which with local citizens who resisted Thompson’s demand were subjected to violent intimidation and demagogic rule.
The editors of this volume, though, seem somewhat blind to this aspect of the revolution, ready as they are for heroes, and in this their own political proclivities come through. The 1960s lurk immediately behind these pages, neatly transposing 1960s ideals onto the 1770s. In their introduction, Young, Nash, and Raphael valorize taking to the streets as the fundamental requirement for political change—the equivalent eighteenth century phrase, “the people out of doors,” gets frequent mention in this volume. They seem to stop just short of asserting that all political and social change occurs from the bottom up, but they do say that the more traditional Founders both held back the popular rebellion and then ultimately turned their back on its revolutionary principles.
Yet even among the three editors there appears a certain tension. In his own excellent essay Alfred Young depicts an alliance among the various ranks of Boston society in the immediate lead-up to revolution. The organization of the people out of doors was undertaken at the behest of the colonial elite of Boston society. This in turn brought the masses into the political process.
But politics is a tricky subject in these pages. Politics requires compromise, conciliation, and prudence, values that don’t quite fit the valorization of popular protest. Ray Raphael’s essay, for example, charts the growth of the American Political Society, a radical society in Worcester that pushed the revolution in advance of the leaders. All seemed to be going well, but in 1775 Sam Adams counseled the society’s leaders to slow down the revolution lest they turn off allies in the other colonies. This was, as many historians have noted, a wise political move, yet Raphael takes the opportunity to point out that this placed the working men of Worcester “in the vanguard” of the Revolution. His comment betrays a purist understanding of politics, devoid of the concept of prudence and compromise, that Sean Wilentz has been criticizing for a number of years (see for example here).
And then there is what might be called a nostalgic presumption that working men everywhere chafed at the rank-ordered society of the colonial era. These essays do show with remarkable clarity that the revolution would not have been possible without the many commoners who supported it. But that does not mean, as Gary Nash would suppose, that the achievement of absolute equality in the political process was, in Nash’s words, “what ordinary men had been fighting for since the early 1760s” (p. 68). If the 1960s revealed anything, it was that one cannot presume to speak for an entire class of people. Just as it was too much for the women’s movement of the 1960s to say that they spoke for all women in support of the ERA–Phyllis Schlafly showed them otherwise–it is too much to claim to know the mind of all workingmen in the 1760s.
This focus on the pressure from below and this determined tendency to valorize the forgotten patriots in the place of the Founders obscures what, to me, is the real value of these essays. They suggest that we need a new point of view altogether, one that avoids the nationalist celebrations and the simplistic political stances that infect this literature of the American Revolution. If we stop looking for heroes, a number of puzzling contradictions emerge. As Eric Foner notes in his Afterward to these essays, the emergence of white democracy in the 1820s “went hand in hand with the strengthening of slavery and the intensification of racism” (p. 395). Similarly, the growth of evangelicalism, which Jefferson disliked as a betrayal of his principle of church-state separation, was essential to the revolutionary antislavery activism of Phyllis Wheatley, as David Waldstreicher shows. And yet, as Jill Lepore points out, the presence of religion in the public sphere and the determined evangelical passions of the masses destroyed Thomas Paine after his publication of The Age of Reason. Even though many of the political elite agreed with him in principle, they could not be seen to be too friendly to him and still maintain political viability.
Given these many contradictions, a small sample of the tensions that course through these pages, the editors’ conceptual framework totters and then falls apart. Revolutions, after all, are complicated affairs. And heroes are sometimes hard to find.